Campaign Trail

Here they come, “for your consideration,” clear through Christmas, elbowing each other to the finish line. So consider in haste.

Invictus takes its title from the Henley poem of the same name: “my unconquerable soul... bloody, but unbowed... master of my fate” — that one. This is doubtless not the sort of project that fans of director Clint Eastwood want from him, a Big Statement, no matter how characteristically understated. (He really does appear to covet Oscars, as many as he can grab.) Marrying elements of the Great Man biography and the inspirational true sports story, it tells of Nelson Mandela’s first years as the first black president of South Africa — timely parallel to somebody closer to home — and his outwardly frivolous, inwardly farsighted interest in his country’s hosting of the Rugby World Cup, 1995, as an opportunity to unify a divided populace. An anti-revenge film, a reconciliation film, it could have been titled Forgiven to round out the course of contrition Eastwood undertook way back with Unforgiven.

The opening shot economically fills in the background: a track and pan from the lush green field trod by white rugby players to the untended dirt field for black soccer kids across the road, and the motorcade that cuts between them carrying Mandela upon his release from prison. As Mandela himself will later say of a different shot on the TV news: “That picture is worth any number of speeches.” Alas, after a narrated assemblage of archive footage and staged re-enactments to bring us up to speed on current affairs, any number of speeches along with any number of polished one-liners will be strewn throughout, mostly to illustrate the sagacity and saintliness of Mandela, more affectionately called “Madiba.” These will not get in the way, however, of the director’s serene craftsmanship, the slanted compositions solidly hinged together and unfolded at a steady and imperturbable pace, stretching out customarily to a wieldy and evenly balanced two and a quarter hours. The visit of the rugby team (all white but one) to the prison where Mandela spent twenty-seven years — and where his afterimage still haunts the burdened team captain, thoughtfully measuring the width of the cell with his own wingspan — stands as a butte among the rolling hills of the dramatic line. Morgan Freeman as Mandela (put a batik shirt on his back and a smile on his face and it’s amazing how well he can pass) and Matt Damon as the rugby captain, François Pienaar, struggle to outdo one another in stoical underplaying, and neither struggles noticeably with the accent. Eastwood, meantime, has his own struggle in making an unfamiliar sport comprehensible (“So, it is very important that we beat Australia”), and although he fails at that on the field of play, he succeeds stirringly in the stands and on the streets and in front of the nation’s televisions.

Brothers, Jim Sheridan’s Hollywood do-over of Susanne Bier’s Danish original, is a wartime soap opera served up as kitchen-sink realism, photographed by Frederick Elmes with a clear and cold albeit clichéd eye for Middle American mundanity. The Good Brother (Tobey Maguire) is off to war in Afghanistan, currently the Good War, a week after the Bad Brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) is out of prison. Then, in a contrivance every long-running daytime drama will have at some point resorted to, namely the Presumed Dead scenario, the good one is erroneously reported KIA, and in his absence the bad one, showing signs of getting better, moves in to provide aid and comfort to his sister-in-law (Natalie Portman) and two nieces. A reserved Maguire, saving up the vein-popping hysterics for the final reel, looks alarmingly pale and frail on his rescue from captivity and his return home, but the slobbery empathy for the maladjusted veteran sets a near impossible standard, as if to imply you mightn’t come in for empathy unless you’d been forced to beat one of your buddies to death with a lead pipe. (Just to tighten the screws, the widow and rug rat of the bludgeoned comrade will turn up one day in your living room.) The film’s most interesting material, the two young daughters’ shifted affection from their zombified father to their barrel-of-fun uncle, demonstrates that interest can be generated without heat and hoo-hah.

Me and Orson Welles fictionalizes, mythologizes, the Mercury Theatre’s mounting of a modern-dress Julius Caesar in 1937, the titular “me” being a stagestruck high-schooler who in one week lands a small speaking and singing part in the Broadway production, falls head over heels for the company secretary, sees her stolen out from under him by the titular Orson, gets fired and rehired and refired, falls back on a nicer girl for a happy ending, and at least has something to tell his grandchildren. As a coming-of-age tale, it isn’t much, but as an exhibition of old-fashioned studio filmmaking, luxurious sets and costumes lusciously photographed, it is more than adequate. It in any event is more than we could have expected from Richard Linklater (Slacker, Before Sunrise, School of Rock, etc.), whose only other period piece is the negligible Newton Boys, and who did not stand strict guard against all anachronisms: a sexist attitude in the 1930s would not have been called “demeaning,” nor of course would it have been called sexist.

In eye and in mouth, in glance and in cadence, the unknown British actor Christian McKay magically conjures the Welles we know, although given his age it would be the Welles of, say, The Third Man or Othello. (Other Mercury players we know, Joseph Cotten, George Coulouris, Norman Lloyd, are not rendered with such fidelity, or indeed any fidelity, outside of perhaps the choppy waves on Cotten’s head.) It ought to give us serious pause when we calculate to ourselves that the actor who fills the role of the teenager, Zac Efron, is in real life the same age as Welles would have been in 1937, and in that pause we can reflect that we are getting the Welles of myth and legend instead of the Welles of a particular time and place: allusions to The Magnificent Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight knowingly open the gateway to the near and distant future. With Citizen Kane only four years away, the ham in him (he’s always “on,” never “off”) seems already reasonable to affirm, and the proportions of genius to pretender would be subject to dispute at every phase of his career, but the bully, the tyrant, is nowhere tempered by any sense of callow bluff or self-doubt. He comes across, if through age alone, as a hardened bully and tyrant. The performance, from start to finish, remains more impression than characterization.

Up in the Air marks a comedown from Jason Reitman’s auspicious first two features, Thank You for Smoking and Juno, narrowly centered as it is on a narrowly self-centered hero, a travelling corporate downsizer, a hired hatchet man, now a potential dinosaur whose way of life is threatened — by long-distance terminations via the innovation of video conferencing — before he can reach his lone life’s goal of becoming just the seventh man in history, and the youngest ever, to log ten million air miles and to reap the benefits that come with that milestone. The smirky smugness of a backsliding George Clooney, back at least as far as Danny Ocean if not all the way to Dr. Ross on ER, makes him an unlikely candidate to be handing out pink slips, unless as a grotesque expressionistic subjective projection of the pink-slip recipients. The recipients themselves, while widely varied in type, many of them having been downsized in real life, are for the most part penned up in bum’s-rush montages. And the movie overall seems to share rather too much of the protagonist’s glibness and frigidity. Waiting for a crack to appear in his façade is a sufficiently conventional plot hook, and patching up the crack afterwards is an insufficiently unconventional ending.

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